Tired of your broadband internet service options? Join the club. Millions of us live in areas where there is little to no competition among broadband ISPs. You take the provider you’ve got and put up with it, no matter how slow and unresponsive that service might be. Locally owned public broadband–managed by the city or county–could shake up the scene fairly dramatically, but good luck getting it. Despite grand plans from cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, public broadband options are few and far between.
Why is it so hard to get a public broadband network up and running? Sure, it can be pricey, but costs and plans aren’t the biggest obstacles: laws are.
Ars Technica points out today that twenty states have passed laws specifically regulating or restricting cities’ ability to build broadband networks. Utah and Kansas–between them, home to two of the three cities in the nation that currently have Google Fiber–are also contemplating broadband-limiting bills this year.
Wondering who’s behind most of the state-level efforts to quash competition? You guessed it: the cable and broadband industry.
The extremely restrictive Kansas bill was written and proposed directly by the state’s cable lobbying group, an organization representing Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner Cable, among other companies. The Kansas bill is seen as being more harsh than some others, but it’s hardly the only state law that cable lobbyists have gotten involved with.
Ars Technica has a full list of all the creative ways various states have put the kibosh on public broadband plans. Some don’t seem too onerous or unreasonable: Colorado, for example, requires a public referendum before a project moves forward, and Wisconsin requires a feasibility study and a public hearing. Both, though obstacles, are often par for the course in any municipal-level project; local politics can be amazingly complicated and intense.
Then there are some states that don’t mince words, and have explicit or effective bans. Texas outright prohibits municipal broadband, Nevada only allows it in tiny towns (that probably can’t afford to build it), and Pennsylvania prohibits it if there are any private providers around, at all, no matter how terrible and/or exorbitant.
Most of the states with regulations on the books, though, aren’t quite so clear and transparent. Instead, they try to bury public broadband in a pile of impossible metrics and Catch-22 qualifications. Two examples Ars highlights:
Virginia: Municipal electric utilities can offer phone and Internet services “provided that they do not subsidize services, that they impute private-sector costs into their rates, that they do not charge rates lower than the incumbents, and that [they] comply with numerous procedural, financing, reporting and other requirements that do not apply to the private sector.”
North Carolina: “Numerous” requirements make it impractical to provide public communications services. “For example, public entities must comply with unspecified legal requirements, impute phantom costs into their rates, conduct a referendum before providing service, forego popular financing mechanisms, refrain from using typical industry pricing mechanisms, and make their commercially sensitive information available to their incumbent competitors.”
And even when the law might not be enough of an obstacle, lobbyists are hard at work pushing back in every way they can on any potential public competition. This month, they’re working that mission in Seattle.
Seattle’s plans for a municipal fiber network were put on pause earlier this year when their chosen business partner turned out not to be a great pick. Gigabit Squared wasn’t able to handle the contract as planned, and the city’s still trying to figure out how best to move forward.
Comcast’s suggestion for how Seattle should do it? That they shouldn’t, of course. Techdirt points to a Seattle Times editorial extolling the virtues of Comcast’s broadband options, and denying that Seattle residents might dare to want better options or better prices. Residents just don’t want faster internet, it says:
Comcast offers a 105 megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speed across its entire service area in Seattle and Washington state. Despite this widespread availability of high-speed broadband, residential use of this service is low. Only 5 percent of residents currently subscribe to this service, according to the company.
Of course, there’s no mention of how much that high-speed connection might actually cost the average residential user. (Techdirt reports it’s $400 a month, with a $1000 early termination fee and $500 worth of installation and activation fees.) But it couldn’t possibly be the money stopping people, could it? Nah. They just don’t actually want anything better:
The fact is residential demand for speeds greater than what is now available is very limited. Most people take service around 20 Mbps to 50 Mbps.
Most people take something; therefore it’s sufficient and doesn’t need to be improved. Of course.
Where does all this wonderful logic come from? The writer of the editorial is the executive director of the Broadband Communications Association of Washington, a state lobbying group with Comcast as one of its banner members. It’s hardly the first time the “consumers simply don’t want better connections” explanation has been used; Comcast floated a similar editorial in Philadelphia last fall.
When it comes to broadband, what consumers want and what consumers take remain two very different things. In fact if people didn’t want to build municipal broadband networks, it seems likely cable and lobbying organizations wouldn’t have to keep working so hard to prevent them from doing it.
Residents of the cities that have fiber networks, either entirely on their own or in a public-private partnership as with Google Fiber, seem to be pretty pleased with their options–even when they don’t take the local option. Competition creates better environments for consumers.